Thursday, 31 December 2009

Pakistan terror victims at an all-time high

Figures compiled from newspaper reports by Dawn newspaper show that more than 3,300 people, including law-enforcement and armed forces personnel, were killed in 2009 in terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan.
The statistics confirm that Pakistan is more dangerous that Afghanistan at present, with more killings, more bombings and more suicide attacks. And this is despite the fact that in Azad Kashmir, previously a major hotspot for terrorism, there have been very few incidents in the last year.
Suicide bombers struck every fifth day in Pakistan, killing 1,037 people n 76 suicide attacks in 2009. December saw the highest number of suicide attacks — 15 — which claimed 211 lives. On average nine lives were lost daily.
The data show that 443 army and police personnel lost their lives during military operations and terrorist attacks, the most brazen of which was carried out on 10 October by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants on the heavily-guarded GHQ in Rawalpindi. Six soldiers and four attackers were killed in the siege, which lasted almost 24 hours.
At least 42 people, including a number of serving and retired army officers, were killed in two suicide blasts and a gun attack on an army mosque near the GHQ on 4 December.
The NWFP was the worst-hit province where more than 64 per cent of the terrorism-related incidents took place in 2009. About 2,133 people lost their lives in the province with another 699 killed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
In Punjab, 369 people were killed in different incidents. Two incidents of terrorism took place in Sindh, where 44 people died. A further 35 people were killed in Balochistan, 29 in Islamabad and eight in Azad Kashmir.
The bloodiest month was May, during which 1,120 people — 945 in the NWFP alone — were killed. It was in this month that the government launched a full-scale military operation in Swat, Buner and adjoining areas.
The Taliban targeted many prominent personalities during the year, including elected representatives, seven of whom, including Allama Sarfaraz Naeemi who was an outspoken opponent of the Taliban, were killed in suicide attacks.
Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi survived an attempt on his life in Islamabad on 2 September.
Two MPAs from the Awami National Party — Dr Shamsher Khan and Alamzeb Khan — also lost their lives in terrorist attacks.
Senior NWFP Minister Bashir Bilour survived an assassination attempt in Peshawar on 11 March during which six people, including two suspected suicide attackers, were killed.
The Taliban also blew up the shrine of the revered 17th century Sufi poet Abdurrahman Baba in Peshawar.
The military claimed to have killed a number of important leaders of the TTP and al-Qaeda during operations in the NWFP and FATA. TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack in August in South Waziristan.
In Lahore on 3 March a convoy of two buses carrying Sri Lankan cricketers and officials was attacked by 12 gunmen near the Qadhafi Stadium. Six policemen and two civilians were killed.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Leading Pakistani cleric makes Blackwater claim

Today in Karachi, the noted religious scholar Mufti Muhammad Rafi Usmani (above) alleged that US defence contractor Blackwater was responsible for Monday's bloody suicide bombing in the city that killed at least 43 people and wounded a further 90 taking part in a Shia Ashura procession.
Mufti Usmani is no backwoods mullah, living out in the sticks. In fact, he is Grand Mufti of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
According to Wikipedia: "He is also the current President of Darul Uloom Karachi. He is the son of the late Mufti Muhammad Shafi Uthmani, the founder of Darul Ulum Karachi. He is recognized for his knowledge in fiqh, hadith, and tafsir. He has authored a large number of books in Urdu, as well as some notable treatises in Arabic. He is the brother of another notable Islamic scholar, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani and Maulana Wali Razi. Mufti Sahab is also a member of Jamiatul Ulama USA."
After making this ridiculous claim at a press conference, the Grand Mufti went on to say that immediately after the blast, markets were set on fire according to a well thought-out plan and he asked how the perpetrators could get petrol and weapons so quickly.
The Mufti made this remarkable claim despite the fact that the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan has claimed full responsibility for the Karachi suicide attack.
"My group claims responsibility for the Karachi attack and we will carry out more such attacks, within 10 days," Asmatullah Shaheen, one of the commanders of TTP, told Reuters. He is in the leadership of TTP and one of its 20 most wanted figures.
Talking to Pakistan's SAMAA news channel on Wednesday Asmatullah Shaheen said that the suicide bomber’s Jihadi title was Hasnain Mawya. He was apparently an old man, although Shaheen refused to disclose his original name and age. He added that the attack was carried out in the name of reverence to the Companions of the Prophet. This is another way of saying that the victims were killed because they were Shias.
Update: On Thursday, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq denied that his organisation had carried out the Karachi attack. He said that TTP commander Asmatullah Shaheen, who took responsibility for the attack, "acted on his own will". Tariq denied that the TTP attacked public places. This is, of course, untrue. On the same day, the TTP's commander in the Punjab, Khalilullah, was arrested by police in the company of a 17-year-old suicide bomber. According to reports, they were planning to attack the flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border crossing into to India in two days time. Police say Khalilullah was responsible for the Moon Market bombing in Lahore on 8 December that killed more than 40 people and injured another 100, many of them women and children.

US Army training emphasises hearts and minds

An unclassified memorandum on training requirements, circulated by US Forces Afghanistan HQ earlier this month and published on the Cryptome website, contains some fascinating details of military procedures on a range of subjects including the pros and cons of wearing body armour, the deployment of Female Engagement Teams, the selection of Forward Operating Bases, language skills and the poor training of soldiers in indirect (mortar) fire.
The memo shows that at least at leadership level the US Army is prepared to make major doctrinal changes based on experience in the field. Whether these changes are actually implemented by platoon commanders is more difficult to judge.
On language training, the memo says it is "as important as your other basic combat skills". Soldiers are to begin language training well before they deploy and every platoon commander must reach a basic level of proficiency in Dari/Pashto.
The memo notes that units deploying to Afghanistan cannot interact with the female half of the population and that Female Engagement Teams (FETs) should be used more widely. "FETs have the potential to significantly improve relationship-building within Afghanistan, enhance information gathering and cast US forces in a positive light", it says.
The memo notes that to date FETs have been used primarily by the Marines, but that this should now be extended to all units. It recommends culture classes to educate FET members on considerations such as dress, offensive physical gestures, customs and religion. They should also receive training in the Pashtunwali code "to better understand Pashtun culture".
The issue of body armour is a delicate one. In the UK, the lack of it was a major issue until the government made more money available to ensure all troops were fully equipped.
However, the memo states that although wearing individual body armour (IBA) can be an appropriate force protection measure, "its near-universal application in Afghanistan has become a hindrance to establishing bonds in this personal relationship and trust-based society."
It notes that wearing IBA has become a default position, but that to Afghans it conveys a message of distrust or uneasiness. Usfora's Counter-Insurgency guidance notes state that "excessive force protection is distancing, not inspiring". Instead, units should be trained to know when to take off IBA.
On the selection of sites for forward operating bases (FOBs), the memo notes that in one town, locals asked for the FOB to be built around the local cellphone tower, as a previous one had been destroyed by the Taliban. It says FOBs - of which there are more than 200 - should be built within population centres to encourage trust and support from the local population. Locals should even be involved in the selection of sites for FOBs.
Interestingly, the memo encourages soldiers to think of the Taliban in two distinct groups:
"Group 1 are the ideological Taliban who will never accept a Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as legitimate. This group must be eliminated. Group 2 are the 'upset brothers', a description in Pashto. When we address and alleviate their issues they will reintegrate with Afghan society. We can affect this goal with the 'upset brothers' by using our FOBs to enhance participation with the people."

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Bergdahl says he is "healthy, well and safe"

The video released by the Taliban on Christmas Day of captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahl does little to resolve the question of whether or not he is a traitor. Put out by Al-Emara Jihadi Studio, the Taliban's new media arm - until earlier this year they relied on the Pakistan-based As-Sahab media house - the video, entitled One of their People Testified, is mainly a propaganda argument about the treatment of prisoners. Much of its 37 minutes is taken up with details of the atrocities committed against moslem prisoners in Guantanamo and at Bagram in Afghanistan, together with footage from Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
All of this, of course, was free propaganda for the Islamists and starkly illustrates why mistreatment of prisoners is ultimately counter-productive.
This is the second video of Bergdahl, who was captured on 30 June in eastern Afghanistan and is probably being held by the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, based over the border in Pakistan's North Waziristan.
The video was produced by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan's Commission of Cultural Affairs and contains a warning at the beginning that it should not be seen with a musical accompaniment.
Only after a long introduction about American treatment of prisoners do we see Bergdahl himself. In contrast to the first video, where he was shown wearing traditional Afghan clothes, in the new video he is wearing his battledress, a military helmet and sunglasses and it is difficult to tell whether or not he is reading a prepared statement.
He speaks in the first person and seems to be extemporising when he says, for example, that "the numbers and facts prove that we have surpassed Hitler in his horror". His speech is rambling, but he occasionally looks to one side as if he may be looking at some general notes. Clearly his captors do not want it to appear that he is reading from a prepared statement.
He tells his parents at one point that he is "so sorry that it took so long to do something with my life" and that "strangely enough, I am making a lot of headway here."
He adds that "I'm healthy, I'm well, I'm safe", although he admits he is chained. Still shots show him eating a banana. He says his captors are treating him according to their religion and that they are following their religion "more than I have seen anybody follow their religion".
He adds that he has a toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving equipment and that he is "getting meals as if I was a guest here". One possibility is that he is now studying Islam, although he does not feel confident enough to declare himself a moslem. Personally, I would not be surprised if he becomes a convert.
The video ends with a statement read by official Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who says that the offer to exchange Bergdahl for a "limited number" of Taliban prisoners still stands.
If Bergdahl is ever recaptured/freed by the US Army, there will doubtless be a debate over whether or not he has betrayed his country. His family still believes he is simply a captured prisoner. Others may be less sympathetic.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Pakistan Taliban commander unbowed

Hakimullah Mahsud (l)and Waliur Rahman (r)

Interesting comments from the Pakistan Taliban's deputy leader, Waliur Rahman, who on Monday night gave the first interview by any of the group's leaders since the start of the Pakistan Army's offensive into South Waziristan on 17 October.
The interview took place in Shaktoi in South Waziristan, which in itself is revealing. Shaktoi is on the border of north and south Waziristan, in the territory of the Shabi Khel Mahsuds, one of the sub-tribes. It is interesting to note that Mullah Powindah, one of the most active opponents of the British in Waziristan in the 1880s-90s, was a Shabi Khel Mahsud.
You may also be surprised to find out that he assumed the title of Badshah-e-Taliban in the 1880s, so don't let anyone try to convince you that the Taliban is a new phenomenon.
Either side of this territory is land controlled by the Daurs and the Tori Khel Wazirs, both supporters of the TTP.
Waliur Rahman himself is from the Mal Khel of the Manzais of the Mahsuds, who are cousins to the Shabi Khel. As one informant told me: "They normally are on very good terms and are closer to each other in blood than the others, so if there is a problem among the Mahsud clans, the Manzais would always stand with Shabi Khels and vice versa."
This may all sound a bit complicated, but it is all of significance. The real point about Rahman's appearance is that it took place despite the presence of thousands of Pakistani troops in the area and Pakistani Army claims of a major success against the TTP.
Rahman appeared relaxed, according to the Ishtiaq Mahsud, the AP reporter who got the interview. He said he first travelled to the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali and from there was taken by Taliban militants on a six-hour ride to South Waziristan in a vehicle with tinted windows. No attempt to disguise themselves, it seems.
The interview took place in a large mudbrick compound, where Waliur Rahman was surrounded by seven bodyguards,and Azam Tariq, the TTP official spokesman. Despite Army claims that they have killed more than 600 fighters, Rahman claimed to have lost no more than 20.
Doubts are growing about the success of the Pakistan Army's offensive in South Waziristan. Although they have destroyed a lot of houses and seized large numbers of weapons, they appear not to have engaged and destroyed the TTP fighters, most of whom ran away to North Waziristan and Orakzai before the offensive began. Who is right: the Pakistan Army or Waliur Rahman?

Monday, 21 December 2009

Opium not so profitable for Afghan farmers

The United Nations's Opium Survey 2009, published last week, fills in some of the gaps found in the Summary Findings, published in September. It confirms that opium cultivation in Afghanistan decreased by 22 per cent, while production fell by 10 per cent to 6,900 tons.
The number of people involved in opium production, at 1.6 million, is a drop of one third since the previous year and the number of poppy-free provinces is up from 18 to 20 (out of 34).
New information includes the fact that the potential gross export value of Afghanistan's opiates is down 18 per cent, from $3.4 bn in 2008 to $2.8 bn this year. Opium now accounts for around a quarter of Afghanistan's GDP, compared to a third last year.
Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, makes a personal plea to President Karzai in the report: "For the sake of a viable future, the Afghan government must regain control over the main opium growing regions, bring major drug traffickers to justice, and promote more honest government."
The survey produces some interesting information. Part of the reason for the fall-off in cultivation is the low prices opium is fetching, due to a glut. In 2009 the ratio between gross income from opium and gross income from wheat was 3:1. The ratio between the net income from opium and wheat was even smaller, at 2:1. Compare this figure to 2003, when farmers could earn 27 times more gross income per hectare of opium than per hectare of wheat.

Pakistan's invisible counter-terrorism agency

What has happened to Pakistan's National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta)? Set up in January this year, it has done little more than appoint a national coordinator, Tariq Pervez - the retired head of the country's Federal Investigation Agency. Reports in the Pakistan press say that Nacta is "presently confined to a single room where Pervez has his office", while some reports suggest he is on the verge of resigning.
Nacta was supposed to be the focus for Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, tasked with reseaching and analysing the mindset of militants and integrating civilian, military, provincial and federal efforts - namely the activities of the FIA, the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau of the police.
When its formation was announced in January 2009 by Pakistan's prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani he tasked it with drawing up a national strategy in consultation with all the stakeholders to boost counterterrorism efforts. In February, Interpol chief Khoo Boon Hui praised Pakistan for setting up the agency, sending a letter to Tariq Pervez saying that the establishment of Nacta was "a strong testament to the commitment of Pakistan towards addressing the menace of terrorism".
Since then, despite the massive increase in terror-related incidents and the increasingly regular suicide bombings and gun attacks by Islamist militants which have killed hundreds of Pakistani citizens, Nacta has been conspicuous by its absence from either investigations or from strategic discussions.
Nacta is presently located in the Interior Ministry where the minister, Rehman Malik, has been responsible for its existence. The lack of activity prompted prime minister Gilani to make a visit to the ministry recently to question Malik on what was happening.
“Serious efforts are required for countering terrorism and extremism through psychological warfare that needs proper research and analysis of the mindset of militants,” Gilani was quoted as saying. He added that the organisation should "act as a think-tank to give policy options to the government on countering extremism and terrorism,”.
In a thinly-velied criticism he said the interior ministry’s actions in protecting the life and property of the people should be visible to the public eye. “It is the duty of the government to ensure foolproof security of the citizens.”
Gilani also announced that funding for the new agency would double from $3.5 million to $7 million within a year, although there is little to show how money has been spent so far. The European Union had previously agreed to support the agency with a grant of 15 million Euros. This month, the German state-funded development agency, GTZ, advertised for a senior police advisor to Nacta, with a provisional starting date of January 2010. Will anything have changed by then?

Friday, 18 December 2009

The strange case of David Coleman Headley

What are we to make of the David Coleman Headley case? It is alleged that Headley carried out numerous surveillance trips to Mumbai on behalf of the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group prior to the attack last year and also scoped out the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published the Mohammed cartoons, in preparation for an attack that never took place.
He was eventually arrested in October at Chicago's O'Hare international airport when it became apparent he was participating in yet another plan by the LeT terrorist group to attack India.
Not only was Coleman a highly trained LeT operative who had spent months in training camps in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. After being convicted of attempting to import heroin in to the United States in 1997, he became a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant and then, post 9/11, an FBI agent.
Today, in yet another twist in this story, the sole-surviving Mumbai attacker, Ajmal Kasab, claimed that Headley was a member of the FBI team that interrogated him after his capture.
Clearly there are wheels within wheels here. While the US may have thought it was running a brilliant agent, he was almost certainly working for the opposition. It is almost impossible to believe that Headley's LeT handlers and their friends in Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, did not know of Headley's connections to US law enforcement agencies.
As each day goes by more information is being revealed about this unusual US citizen. He was born in Washington in 1970 and named Daood Salim Gilani, the son of Syed Salim Gilani, who worked for Voice of America and later headed up Pakistani radio, and Serrill Headley, his American mother. He spent much of his childhood in Pakistan after his father gained custody following a divorce, but returned to America when he was 17 to live with his mother. Both his parents died last year.
In fact, Headley is the half-brother of Danyal Gilani, a public relations officer for Pakistan's prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani- to whom he is also distantly related - and one of Headley’s other Pakistan-based relatives in 2001 was a ranking ISI officer.
One theory now doing the rounds is that Headley was actually a CIA asset who was used to infiltrate LeT. This could explain the remarkably explicit (but wrongly timed) warning passed by the USA to India in September last year about a planned attack on precisely the same hotels that were eventually attacked two months later. In this scenario Headley was sent to infiltrate the LeT, but was turned by them and became a double agent.
If you have the time and the inclination you can read more about this extraordinary story here, here and, for an Indian perspective, here . Whether or not Headley was a double, treble, or even quadruple agent will possibly be revealed in his trial. Either way, this case shows the dangers inherent in the black arts of the intelligence services.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

International conference in London

The international conference on Afghanistan, to be hosted by the UK government in London on 28 January, will be the first of three interlinked conferences. Another will follow in Kabul in spring 2010 and then another in spring 2011. You can find out more here, where you can also sign up for news updates.

Monday, 14 December 2009

UK Army bishop admires Taliban's faith and loyalty

I was struck by something the new bishop for the British Armed Forces, the Rt Rev Stephen Venner, said yesterday. According to the Daily Telegraph website, Venner called for a more sympathetic approach to the Taliban that recognises their humanity.
While stressing his admiration for the sacrifices being made by British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, he said:
"There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the west could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation because it’s not honest really. The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.”
He added: “We must remember that there are a lot of people who are under their influence for a whole range of reasons, and we simply can’t lump all of those together. To blanket them all as evil and paint them as black is not helpful in a very complex situation.”
As the Telegraph article pointed out, the Bishop is not the first person to make this point. Earlier this year, Peter Davies, the new right-wing mayor of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, claimed that British society could learn from Taliban family values. He said: "The one thing that can be said about the Taliban is that they do have an ordered society of some sort and that they don't have hundreds of cases of children under threat of abuse from violent parents as we do in Doncaster."
Naive, perhaps, but these kind of comments hightlight the growing moral deficit between the Karzai government and Mullah Omar's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The main story in Kabul at present is President Karzai's feeble attempts to deal with endemic and colossal government corruption. Compare that to the decision by Mullah Omar to issue a Book of Rules earlier this year (see my posting on this) to govern the conduct of his fighters, as well as the Quetta Shura's recent attempts to distance itself from the excesses of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
I am not a philosopher, but all this begs the question of how to justify a war against an enemy that may be morally superior to your own allies. That is, of course, if you can put aside questions such as attitudes to women, fierce Islamic punishments, etc. However, if that was the only basis for war, then we would probably have to declare war on Saudi Arabia as well.
Update: On Monday afternoon, Bishop Venner apologised for claiming that the Taliban could be admired for their "conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty." Clearly he had been jumped upon from a great height. Of the 20 comments on the Telegraph's website reporting the apology, almost all were supportive of Venner, saying that he had said nothing disloyal or insulting to the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Another Taliban statement in favour of negotiations

The Taliban's latest (unsigned) statement, issued yesterday, about President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan makes some interesting claims about the alleged failure of coalition military operations in Helmand this summer. It also says that Washington has rejected a Taliban offer of peace (issued last week) based upon a Taliban guarantee not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. Not sure that this is true.
As if trying to reassure the West, the statement also refers to US national security advisor James Jones stating that most foreign fighters have left Afghanistan. This is probably a referrence to an interview he gave CNN on 4 October, when he said the "maximum estimate" for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was around 100 fighters. There has been other reporting suggesting a substantial falling out between the Quetta Shura and al-Qaeda, although this matter is still unclear and some reports say pro-war officials close to the White House have been playing up Taliban-al-Qaeda relations. Whichever way you look at it, this Taliban statement and several others issued recently (see below) clearly indicate a willingness to negotiate.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Taliban pledge no meddling in foreign internal affairs

An unsigned statement that appeared on the Taliban's website on Friday offers some interesting food for thought. The most important sentence in the statement reads as follows: "The Afghans, particularly the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan."
This is new and worth exploring in greater detail. Does it mean that al-Qaeda will be held to the same guarantee? How could it be enforced? Is this the majority view of the Quetta Shura? What about Hekmatyar and Haqqani?
The statement goes on to blame foreign forces for what it calls the "chaotic situation" in the country. "They handed over power to notorious warlords, venal officials and mafia-linked governors," says the statement.
It continues by noting that ISAF convoys are being escorted by "murderous militias involved in kidnapping and extortion of arbitrary taxes" who use official vehicles to transport heroin.
This latter point is undoubtedly true, and was the subject of an article in the Army Times on Wednesday (which is where the person who wrote the Taliban statement probably saw it). Sean Naylor's article refers to convoy escorts "wreaking havoc as they pass through western Kandahar province, undermining the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy".
The Taliban article also castigates the Karzai government for giving government land to warlords. "Government land in Shirpur, located to the north-east of the Kabul city is a good example. Once a property of the Ministry of Defense, now it is a posh area usurped by the warlords who have built luxurious houses there."
Again, this is true, but an old story, first reported in 2003 , when Karzai allocated government land to 30 of his ministers and officials. Squatters who had lived there for 20 years were evicted.
The statement makes it clear that even if the Taliban accept the principle of negotiation, they will not lay down their arms until all foreign forces have left the country.
One final point to note about this statement. It says that Afghanistan has become the location for a proxy war between different intelligence services. "Bomb blasts in public places are the work of these agencies," it says. India and Pakistan take note.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

A soldier's strategy for winning in Afghanistan

One of the significant differences between the British and US armies is that the latter seem to be able to engage publicly in a much franker level of discussion about issues raised by the conflict in Afghanistan. Although the British Army allows blogs from soldiers serving in Helmand (see Frontline bloggers or Helmand Blog), these are little more than cheery news from the frontline about the latest successes. They don't set out to confront any of the serious issues and nor do they challenge official doctrine.
In contrast, there are some fascinating blogs and writings by serving US soldiers. One of the most striking of these is a pamphlet called One Tribe at a Time, by Major Jim Gant of the US Special Forces, published recently. In 2003 and 2004 Gant fought in Kunar and Helmand provinces before working as an adviser to an Iraqi National Police Quick Reaction Force battalion. He then spent the next two years as an unconventional warfare instructor for Special Forces.
Gant argues passionately that the key to success against the Taliban is to work with the tribes. He says: We demonstrated month in and month out that a small effective fighting force could unite with an Afghan tribe, become trusted and respected brothers-in-arms with their leaders and families, and make a difference in the US effort in Afghanistan. In doing so, we discovered what I believe to be the seed of enduring success in that country."
His strategy is based on the idea of Tribal Engagement Teams, working as part of an overall strategy that allows these teams working closely with a tribal group to decide how to engage the enemy. As Gant says: "TETs must be allowed to be on their own, grow beards, wear local garb, and interact with the tribesmen at all levels. They must be allowed to be what they are: American tribesmen...Rules of Engagement must change. Using the TETs will become a very intense, personal fight. If they need to drop bombs or pursue an enemy, they must be able to do so. The teams will always fight alongside Tribal Security Forces (TSFs), and no missions will be conducted unilaterally. There will always be an Afghan face on any mission."
It is hard not to feel that Gant has somehow 'gone native' while reading his pamphlet. He refers to a local tribal leader in Kunar as 'Chief Sitting Bull' and says things like: "I feels like I was born there. The greatest days of my entire life were spent in the Pesch Valley and Musa Qala and with the great 'Sitting Bull'...I love the people and the rich history of Afghanistan. They will give you their last abit of food in the morning and then try and kill you in the evening. A people who despite their great poverty, as as happy as any American I have ever met. A people who kill and fight and die for the sake of honor. A great friend and a worthy enemy."
Gant believes that specially trained soldiers can win trust with Afghan tribes and gradually spread their influence across the country. He speaks eloquently of his own experiences in Kunar where his special forces group were able to win over one tribal grouping - and to be treated as fellow tribesmen.
All of this, to anyone who has never visited Afghanistan before, is very intoxicating. Afghan friendship is something special. And for Gant and his comrades, there is something very heroic about these Pashtun fighters. They uphold many of the values he himself holds most dear - although Gant does not care to mention any of the less 'heroic' values that sometimes go with village life, such as honour killing of women.
In truth, it is unlikely that the generals of the US Army would allow small groups of soldiers to embed themselves in Afghan tribes - or that any kind of coherence would be the result. As Gant may know, feuding is a national pastime in parts of Afghanistan, much of it between close relatives. Almost the first action through which Gant won trust from his hosts was a threat against another tribal group that had taken over some land. How do you decide who is right?
Gant's pamphlet is a very human document. He came to Afghanistan as a soldier and found men to whom he could relate and who impressed him with their warrior qualities. He is not the first person to whom this has happened. Nor will he be the last.
In the introduction to his pamphlet, Gant says he started writing it in 2008 after he received orders to return to Afghanistan. It was to have been his 'Intelligence Preparation for the Battlefield' (IPB) document. A few days before he was due to leave for Afghanistan early in 2009, he was told he was not being sent there after all. Instead he was being sent to 1st Armored Division for a return tour to Iraq. Make of that what you will.

Friday, 4 December 2009

American anthropologists unhappy with HTS

More on anthropologists and the US Army's Human Terrain System (see my entry for 24 Nov). At its annual meeting in held in Philadelphia this week, the American Anthropological Association published another report on the Human Terrain System. Its Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) published its Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program which has been gestating since December last year.
The report notes that HTS and similar programs are becoming a greater fixture within the US military, a fact that should be a "source of concern" for the AAA and for any social science organisation or federal agency "that expects its members or employees to adhere to established disciplinary and federal standards for the treatment of human subjects".
In fact there are a total of 27 Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) teams, 21 of which are in Iraq and six in Afghanistan. Those working for the HTS go through a four-and-a-half month training programme before being placed into a Human Terrain Team.
At present HTS has 417 employees (including deployed team members, personnel in training, RRC members, and program staff, including both military and non-military personnel). Of those, 135 have an MA degree, 11 are ABD, 49 have a PhD, and 33 have other technical or military degrees.
The report says that any anthropologist working for HTS will have difficulty reconciling potentially irrreconcilable goals and in determining whether or not s/he will be able to follow the AAA's disciplinary Code of Ethics.
The key statement is as follows: "When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology."
The AAA does not rule out entirely the possibility of constructive engagement between anthropology and the military, although its panel suggests that the organisation should emphasise the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers.
One obvious point, if the HTS is beyond the pale for the AAA, what about the university departments - for example at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which offers Afghanistan Immersion training - that offer courses for HTS employees? How do they feel about their role?

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

More US troops needed in Kandahar - report

As US commanders consider how they are going to deploy an extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan in the next few weeks, they may be considering a strategy spelt out in a report from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Written by Carl Forsberg, who has also worked at the US Marine Corps Intelligence HQ and for the Ugandan State Minister for Disaster Relief and Refugees in Kampala, The Taliban's Campaign for Kandahar argues that The Quetta Shura of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has made the province of Kandahar, including the city itself, a primary objective of its campaign in the south of the country. Since 2004 it has taken control of the districts around the city one-by-one, with the result that by the end of 2008 its forces could use these areas to launch attacks on the provincial capital itself.
In contrast, ISAF has failed to prioritise the province over Helmand and has also failed to position sufficient forces within the city. Due to lack of troops, ISAF has only been able to disrupt the Taliban in Kandahar, but not eradicate it. Forsberg says ISAF should use enough troops to neutralise the Taliban in Kandahar, which is a necessary first step to reversing the Taliban's gains throughout the south of Afghanistan.
The problem with Forsberg's argument is that it cannot show how an increase in troops in the city will defeat the Taliban. The Canadians and the US battalion fighting in Arghandab to the north of the city have both been badly stung by Taliban fighters, who clearly have substantial support in the area. Indeed Forsberg himself points this out, noting "The Taliban’s judicial system, regularized taxation, oversight mechanisms, complaints committees, and protection of opium growers all demonstrate a clear concern with winning local support" and "The Taliban’s desire to win public support in occupied areas through their judicial code is also demonstrated by their willingness to moderate the harsh legal prohibitions on entertainment they had taken during their tenure in power during the 1990s. Radio, television, and the shaving of beards are no longer outlawed by the Taliban in Kandahar, although such activities remained rare in many Taliban-controlled villages due to a reigning conservative social culture."
If only it were possible to compliment the Karzai government in the same way.
The issue today is not military defeat of the Taliban. This is unlikely, even with the extra troops now heading to Afghanistan. A greater troop presence in the crowded confines of the city and surrounding connurbations will only lead to civilian deaths and even greater disenchantment. The only military strategy that makes sense now is one that drives a wedge between Mullah Omar on the one hand and the al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists who are using the Afghans to further their own heretical aims.

Monday, 30 November 2009

US govt defends its policy on Afghanistan

On Wednesday afternoon at 1.30pm Washington time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, will all be giving evidence to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the subject of US Strategy in Afghanistan. Should be interesting. You can watch it live on TV here.

Rumsfeld the architect of bin Laden's escape

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry, has just published Tora Bora Revisited: How we failed to get bin Laden and why it matters today (funny how committees are now apeing the publishing world's fad for overlong and complicated titles!).
It re-examines the farcical and half-hearted attempt to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001. They failed and the reasons are neatly summed up in the report:
"Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead, the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organized Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or around December 16, two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area."
It was the former US defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his military commander, General Tommy Franks, who made the incomprehensible decision not to reinforce the commandos, believing that large US forces would face a backlash and that, anyway, the war could be won by small groups of special forces acting in concert with local warlords. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Rumsfeld is a dangerous idiot.
The Senate committee report makes it clear that, despite earlier denials, there was plenty of evidence that bin Laden and his senior commanders were at Tora Bora. The official history of the US Special Operations Command says: "All source reporting corroborated his presence on several days from 9-14 December".
As this report was produced by a Democratic-majority committee, its political overtones should not be dismissed. But before they become too complacent, the committee members may well want to consider how history will judge US policy in Afghanistan since January 2009.

How to bring peace through reconciliation

When Michael Semple, the Irish-born and Dari-speaking UN deputy head of mission in Afghanistan was expelled from that country in December 2007 for allegedly talking to the Taliban, it was widely recognised that this was a major blow to Western efforts at reconciliation.
Semple was expelled together with Mervyn Patterson, a British-born UN official after they travelled to Helmand and made contact with tribal leaders close to the Taliban. The Afghan security services believed they were involved in unauthorised contacts and were offering to pay commanders who defected.
Although it was not said openly, the suspicion was that both men were working for MI6. It later transpired that both men were the victim of petty jealousies, with one local leader reporting them to the Afghan intelligence service because he feared being marginalised.
Semple and Patterson insisted that their talks were legitimate. In part they were based on theories that Semple has now outlined in much greater detail in a new publication called Reconcialiation in Afghanistan, published by the United States Institute for Peace.
In this short, but very readable book, Semple outlines his argument that peace is achievable in Afghanistan. He says two-thirds of the Taliban are fighting not for idealogical reasons, but due to local conflicts and that these networks can be persuaded to reach an accommodation with the government.
Semple says his book is based on interviews between 2004 and 2007 with around 200 Afghans who had been involved directly or indirectly in the country's insurgency, ranging from senior Taliban leaders to the lowest level of insurgent. At least one was a provincial commander. "Many of the men expressed their aspirations for the future," writes Semple, "and none of them came across as crazy or fanatic."
The book gives excellent descriptions of all the attempts to date to open negotiations with insurgents in Afghanistan and offers many strategies for continuing that process. He says:
"To date, the focus of the Afghan government and international partners has been primarily on achieving subjugation or co-option of the armed opposition. But these efforts have achieved little strategic effects, partly because the fear of appeasement or capitulation has been used to deter potially effective measures of accommodation."
This book should be required reading for all military personnel in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Claims that Blackwater is active in Pakistan

In a remarkable article published in The Nation, US journalist Jeremy Scahill alleges that the controversial private security company Blackwater (now known as Xe) is involved in a "secret war " in Pakistan, involving the planned assassination of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.
He says his main unnamed source "has worked on covert US military programs for years, including Afghanistan and Pakistan," and has direct knowledge of Blackwater's activities. If he is correct, his allegations will have a massive impact in Pakistan, which is already awash with rumours involving Blackwater.
The potential for blowback is enormous. Already many people in Pakistan are convinced that several recent car bombings, particularly in Peshawar in the North West Frontier, are the work of foreign intelligence agencies.
Two weeks ago, al-Qaeda's commander of military operations in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid, issued a statement on the subject:
"Today, everyone knows what Blackwater and the criminal security contractors are doing after they came to Pakistan with the support of the criminal, corrupt government and its intelligence and security apparatus. They are the ones who commit these heinous acts, then accuse the Mujahedeen of their crimes."
According to Scahill, who is the respected author of Blackwater: The rise of the World's most powerful Mercenary Army (Serpent's Tail, 2007), Blackwater is continuing to work in Pakistan, even though a covert CIA program was closed down in June 2009. Its operatives, almost all ex-special forces, are working with the US Joint Special Operations Command to plan actions that are then carried out by the US Army.
In addition, says Scahill, Blackwater has a contract with a Pakistani company called Kestral Logistics, which specializes in military logistical support, private security and intelligence consulting and is staffed with former high-ranking Pakistani army and government officials. He adds that his sources have told him that Blackwater staff often take part in Kestral actions, particularly along the border with Afghanistan where they are known to work with the Frontier Corps.
Blackwater staff also work on two drone programs in Pakistan - one for the CIA and another for the JSOC. A source in military intelligence told Scahill: "So when you see some of these hits, especially the ones with high civilian casualties, those are almost always JSOC strikes."
None of Scahill's sources are named, nor does he appear to have any physical evidence or photos for the claims he makes. Blackwater, the US Army, the US Ambassador to Pakistan have all denied the story. So far the Pakistani press has been subdued on the subject. But all that could change very quickly and the consequences for the military campaign against the Islamist militias in Pakistan will be immense.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Anthropology and the US Army

The death of an American anthropologist embedded with a US Army platoon in southern Afghanistan last February has not stopped the controversial $250 million Human Terrain System (HTS) programme, under which anthropologists are embedded with army units in order to produce in-depth analysis of the tribal and social structure of communities in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
I spotted this ad from the British company BAe Systems which is recruiting staff to work as analysts for the HTS Research Reachback Cell, based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to produce "culturally specific details in support of operational planning and related activities".
In February, anthropologist Paula Loyd died after a man in a village in southern Afghanistan poured inflammable liquid over her and set her on fire. Soldiers with her shot and killed her attacker. She was the third person on the HTS programme to die in the field. More on the background here.
Academia has always had reservations about such work. In November 2007, a year after the HTS was established, the American Anthropological Institute issued a statement advising its members to take extreme care before working with the military:
"We advise careful analysis of specific roles, activities, and institutional contexts of engagement in order to ascertain ethical consequences. These ethical considerations begin with the admonition to do no harm to those one studies (or with whom one works, in an applied setting) and to be honest and transparent in communicating what one is doing."
That has clearly not stopped people working for the HTS. The BAe Systems advert does not insist on a degree, but says candidates must have a minimum of seven years experience in intelligence analysis and production, civil affairs or psychological operations. Those recruited will work as members of a "cultural research team consisting of multi-discipline analysts and area subject matter experts providing regional cultural and analytical expertise to military decision makers in support of current operations". This would appear to go against the AAI guidelines.
It is interesting to note that some of the HTS output is in the public domain. My cousin's enemy is my friend: A study of Pashtun "tribes" in Afghanistan is a fascinating document. Published in September, it eloquently argues that the tribal system in Afghanistan is much misunderstood. Pashtuns do not operate along tribal lines, but along qawm lines. A qawm is a group with a specific interest which may cut across tribal and ethnic lines. In addition, the report points out that there is a traditional hostility between cousins on the father's side. Numerous feuds are based on this rivalry. The report states:
"In this report, the HTS Afghanistan RRC warns that the desire for “tribal engagement” in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent “Surge” strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain. In fact, the way people in rural Afghanistan organize themselves is so different from rural Iraqi culture that calling them both “tribes” is deceptive. “Tribes” in Afghanistan do not act as unified groups, as they have recently in Iraq. For the most part they are not hierarchical, meaning there is no “chief” with whom to negotiate (and from whom to expect results). They are notorious for changing the form of their social organization when they are pressured by internal dissension or external forces. Whereas in some other countries tribes are structured like trees, “tribes” in Afghanistan are like jellyfish."
What is remarkable about this report is the fact that just as it was being published, the US army revealed that it was attempting to build a system of tribal militias in Afghanistan. The militias have little chance of success if any of the research from the HTS is to believed. A case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Three books worth reading

I've come across several fascinating books recently that should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
First, The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen (Hurst and Co, London 2009), a former Australian army officer and now a leading expert on guerrilla warfare and chief counterterrorism strategist for the US State Department. Although it is not solely about Afghanistan, Kilcullen's clear thinking shines out of this book.
There are too many gems of insight in this book to list them all, but here are a few of the more salient points. He argues that the insurgency in Afghanistan is not primarily focussed on overthrowing the Afghan state, but on consolidating the Pashtun areas under their control - on both sides of the border.
He says the strategy is not a classical Maoist protracted warfare insurgency: "A Maoist approach seeks victory through a displacement strategy of building what classical counterinsurgency theorists call 'parallel hierarchies' - a competitive system of control tantamount to a guerrilla counter-state in permanently liberated areas - which then spread across the country and seek to defeat the government in, eventually, a relatively conventional war of manoeuvre. Rather the Taliban appears to be applying an exhaustion strategy of sapping the energy, resources and support of the Afghan government and its international partners, making the country ungovernable and hoping that the international community will eventually withdraw in exhaustion and leave the government to collapse under the weight of its own lack of effectiveness and legitimacy."
How true! He contrasts the Taliban's concentration on providing governance (including courts) in the areas it controls, to the actions of the Karzai government which ignores these issues.
Kilcullen also point to the importance the Taliban attaches to propaganda, again in contrast to both the Afghan government and the Coalition forces: "The insurgents treat propaganda as their main effort, coordinating physical attacks in support of a sophisticated propaganda campaign."
All is not lost, according to Kilcullen, who point to the insurgents' in ability to break out of their Pashtun/international jihadi circle and spread into other ethnicities or language groups.
A second book that also makes fascinating reading is Decoding the New Taliban, edited by Antonio Giustozzi (also published by Hurst & Co). The essays it contains include 'The Taliban and the Opium Trade' by Gretchen Peters, 'The Taliban in Helmand: An Oral History' by Thomas Coghlan, 'The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan' by Claudio Franco. There are ten further essays and many insights in all of them.
Finally, I thoroughly recommend Talibanisation of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11 by Pakistani journalist Amir Mir (Pentagon Security International, New Delhi, 2009). Mir's relentless investigation into the nexus between the TTP and the Pakistan military and intelligence communities is superb, showing as it does how the very forces nurtured by the ISI as an instrument of foreign policy turned on their masters and now threaten the stability of the state itself.

Devastating impact of waterboarding

In case you haven't seen it before, this short film demonstrates the devastating power of the waterboarding technique, as used on al-Qaeda's main planner for 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (more than 180 times), and others held at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

I should add that KSM told his interrogators little that he had not already told to al-Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda in an interview in Karachi months before his arrest. The result of Fouda's interviews, which took place over several days in an al-Qaeda safe house, were published in the book we wrote together, Masterminds of Terror. Despite being the only person ever to interview KSM - and his co-conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh - Fouda was not asked to testify to the 9/11 Commission.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Counting the cost of thirty years of war

Thirty years of war in Afghanistan have had a devastating impact on the country, including the deaths of around two million Afghanis, the displacement of millions more and the destruction of much of its infrastructure, according to The Cost of War: Afghan Experiences of Conflict 1978-2009, a report published today by nine NGOs working in the country.
However, what this has actually meant for millions of Afghans is brought home by the report, whose authors conducted detailed interviews with more than 700 men and women in 14 provinces. They found, for example, that two people out of five reported having property destroyed, while a third were robbed at some point. More than three-quarters of interviewees reported being forced to leave their homes, of whom 41 per cent were internally displaced and 42 per cent were externally displaced. The rest were displaced at home and abroad. Asked about the current conflict, 17 per cent said they were thinking of leaving the country.
Thirteen per cent reported being imprisoned, an experience that was described as arbitrary and linked with harassment, extortion and threats from local power holders. Release only came when relatives paid bribes or elders negotiated their release. One in five respondents reported being tortured, but only one per cent of these reported receiving any compensation or apology.
Seventy per cent of those interviewed believed unemployment and poverty as a major cause of the conflict, while almost half pointed to the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government.
The interviewees' recommendations to the Afghan goverment are obvious and direct - stop corruption, uphold the law, investigate wrongdoing, reform the police and judiciary. They urge the international community to hold the Afghan government accountable and provide support for local and regional peacebuilding.
All this is fine as far as it goes, but perhaps the NGOs behind this project should have asked a few more questions of themselves. More than 40 per cent of all the billions of dollars spent on aid in Afghanistan never reaches the Afghan people. In fact it often never even leaves the donor country. Instead it is received as fees by NGOs and others who take the lion's share. Who's willing to put their hand up and take responsibility for that?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

NATO Parliamentarians debate Afghanistan

Afghanistan was the focus of much debate at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, meeting in Edinburgh this week. The Assembly, which brings together 350 parliamentarians from 28 NATO countries twice a year, heard General Sir Peter Wall, British Commander in Chief of Land Forces, admit that progress in Afghanistan had been slow and that this was affecting public support for the conflict.
The General also endorsed the idea of engaging select elements of the Taliban in political dialogue. “We want to see the reconcilable Taliban elements integrated, and we want to see the irreconcilable dealt with” said Sir Peter, noting that no counter-insurgency has ever been successful without such an engagement, and that similar initiatives were in fact already taking place at tribal level.
Retired German general Klaus Naumann criticised the Alliance’s reactive attitude towards US policy on Afghanistan. General Naumann went on to underline that NATO should aim to find “an Afghan solution” to establish a functioning state in the country.
“Simply sending in more NATO troops cannot be the solution” he said. “A viable strategy should build on past successes and, coupled together with a counterinsurgency strategy, should be oriented fundamentally around reconstruction”. This would include “working jointly with moderate elements” of the Taliban, of whom he estimated “no more than ten percent” were irreconcilable radicals. The general’s characteristically outspoken presentation was warmly received by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s political committee, and frequently interrupted by applause.
Professor Paul Wilkinson, Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews, said that it would be a “disaster” to withdraw troops from the country as this would allow the network to use it as a base for its international terrorist activities. Success in Afghanistan depended not simply on sending more troops, but required a holistic strategy, he pointed out.
Such a strategy must include political and economic measures, reinforced dialogue with moderate Muslim groups, intelligence gathering and broad and robust counter-proliferation measures to prevent acquisition of biological and nuclear weapons. “I believe that a holistic strategy has not been achieved yet but unless we do, we are not likely to win this struggle in the long run” he concluded.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

US opens new $60 million wing at Bagram prison

Bagram from the air

The US military unveiled a new $60 million prison at Bagram airbase, north of the capital Kabul today, saying it would provide detainees with better living conditions and also promote transparency. Reporters were allowed to visit the facility although it presently contains no inmates. They will start being moved into their new cells during the next two weeks. It is expected that all 700 prisoners presently held in the old prison at Bagram will be transferred by the end of the year. The new prison can hold up to 1,240 prisoners.
Asked how he would describe conditions at the old prison, US commanding officer Brigadier Mark Martins said it had always met international and domestic standards. In fact, prisoners at Bagram have minimal rights. They wear the same orange jump suits as prisoners held at Guantanamo, but have even fewer basic legal rights, such as the right to appear at military hearings that could assess whether or not they pose a security threat.
In June the BBC reported allegations of abuse and neglect at the facility, having interviewed 27 former detainees. The former detainees alleged they were beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened with dogs at the base.
In April 2009 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents and information held by the CIA and Department of Defence on the prisoners in Bagram. It was seeking information on "the number of people currently detained at Bagram, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention, as well as records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as ‘enemy combatants.’"
In a letter responding to the ACLU’s FOIA request, the CIA said it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence" of records containing the information requested by the ACLU.
The DOD’s response said that the department has a list containing basic detainee information, including names, capture dates and circumstances, and length of detainment. However, the DOD said that this list is classified, and cannot be released for national security and personal privacy reasons.
"There are serious concerns that Bagram is another Guant├ínamo – except with many more prisoners, less due process, no access to lawyers or courts and reportedly worse conditions," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "As long as the Bagram prison is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know the truth or begin to address the problems that exist there." In September ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Departments of Defense, Justice and State and the CIA, to enforce a FOIA request for the Bagram records. That case has still to be heard.
In recent years Bagram Airbase has expanded enormously and is now a small town spread over around 5,000 acres. The airfield is already handling 400 tonnes of cargo and 1,000 passengers daily, while plans are underway to build a new $22 million passenger terminal and a cargo yard costing $9 million. To increase cargo capacity, a parking ramp supporting the world's largest aircraft is to be completed in early 2010.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Rash of propaganda stories widely believed

Stories from either side of the Durand Line illustrate the point that truth is always a matter for negotiation. Writing in the Jamestown Foundation's Global Terrorism Analysis, Andrew McGregor discusses the weird story of the "foreign helicopters" that are allegedly ferrying Taliban fighters to Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan provinces in the north of Afghanistan. Even President Karzai has said the helicopters belong to "foreign powers" such as the United States and its allies.
Tolo TV reported Karzai saying: “We have received reliable reports from our intelligence service. We have received reliable reports from our people, and today I received a report that these efforts [to transfer Taliban fighters] are also being made mysteriously in the northwest. The issue of helicopters has also been proved. We do not make any more comments now and investigations are under way to see to whom and to which foreign country these helicopters belong.”
The story appeared in its most developed form in a statement issued in mid October by Iran's Press TV. Their story, quoting unnamed diplomats, alleged that Sultan Munadi, the Afghan journalist killed when UK special forces freed New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell from Taliban custody, was killed because he had documents and photographs verifying the British role in the chopper flights.
McGreggor also noted: "It was not long before the “mystery helicopters” were seen in Pakistan, where the “foreign allies” of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were alleged to be rescuing Taliban militants from the government offensive in South Waziristan. An Islamabad daily reported the belief of “some experts” that the airlift was part of a deal between the Western nations and the so-called “good Taliban”."
What is remarkable is that these stories are widely believed throughout Afghanistan and that the stories have travelled so fast.
Then last week, Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable reported an equally remarkable story in Peshawar, where only a few days previously the Mina Bazaar had been hit by a massive car bomb, killing more than 100 people.
No-one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but there is little doubt it was organised by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in retaliation for the army offensive in South Waziristan. Car bombs went off three days in a row in and around Peshawar last week, killing dozens more people.
Constable reported that most of the outrage expressed by survivors, witnesses, religious leaders and other residents was not directed at Islamist extremist groups, but at the countries many Pakistanis see as their true enemies: India, Israel and the United States.
She said: "In part, this reaction stems from a deep popular conviction that no Muslim could perpetrate such atrocities against other Muslims. The more egregious the attack, the stronger seems the tendency to deny a domestic cause and blame other, more remote culprits. Some religious and political groups are encouraging such responses, eager to whip up xenophobic sentiment for their own ends."
She noted that the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party organized a “peace march” in central Peshawar from the Khyber Bazaar, scene of another car bomb that killed more than 30 people on 9 October, to the Mina Bazaar. "The marchers held up banners and shouted slogans denouncing the CIA, the Pentagon, the security company formerly known as Blackwater, U.S. drone attacks and American aid. There was no mention of the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
“Muslims! Muslims! We are here to protest against those wrongdoers who work for India, Israel and the United States,” a well-dressed, middle-aged rally organizer shouted through a bullhorn. “We protest against American interference and against our government, which is handing over Pakistan to the foreigners and the unbelievers.”"
A similar story could be told about the "Blackwater" fever that is also gripping Pakistan. Stories appear regularly suggesting that Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, is operating in secret in Pakistan. A week ago it was reported that 202 Blackwater personnel arrived in Islamabad on a flight from Heathrow. Many of them were speaking fluent Urdu, the reports said (as if!!!).
What all these stories illustrate is that the truth alone is no antidote to malicious propaganda. And the propaganda, whatever we may think of it, is very good. It achieves its fundamental goal; it is believed by many tens of thousands of people. Who is responsible for it?
Update: On Thursday, al-Qaeda's No.3 in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid, issued a recording saying that Blackwater was behind the suicide attacks in Peshawar: "Today, everyone knows what Blackwater and the criminal security contractors are doing after they came to Pakistan with the support of the criminal, corrupt government and its intelligence and security apparatus," Yazid said.
On the same day, the BBC's Orla Guerin interviewed a 14-year-old boy from Bajaur who told her how he had been beaten and forced to train as a suicide bomber by the TTP.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Circling the Lion's Den one year on

It is now exactly a year since I started this blog. In that time I have written 108 articles and around 7500 of you have logged on; daily visitors now average between 40 and 60. Numbers are rising and several hundred people have bookmarked the blog. In the next year I anticipate at least 40,000 hits and hopefully more. On average about half of the readers come from the United States, followed by the UK, Russia, Australia and a whole host of other countries. Most of you look at more than one page and stay on the site for about two minutes.
Having looked around, there are few blogs on Afghanistan that offer anything like the breadth of coverage you will find on Circling the Lion's Den. Despite minimal publicity on my behalf, the blog has received widespread coverage and has managed to break a number of significant stories including, for example, the Taliban's cartoon channel on YouTube, which was covered around the world. A big thankyou to you all for making it worth my while.

More signs of division across the Durand Line

In yet another example of the way in which Mullah Omar's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is trying to put distance between itself and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan of Hakimullah Mahsud, an Afghan IEA commander called Abdul Mannan - alias Mullah Toor - has said targeting innocent people in suicide attacks and blasts is wrong. He added in an interveiw with Pakistan's Geo TV that his organisation targets only Americans and Nato forces. Staff from the United Nations in Afghanistan - not to mention Afghan voters, journalists and many others - may wish to disagree.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Afghan security deteriorates - GAO report

As President Obama ponders his next move in Afghanistan, he will not have been cheered up much by the most recent Government Accountability Office report on the security environment in the country. It shows that Afghanistan's security situation has deteriorated significantly since 2005, affecting all aspects of US and allied reconstruction operations:
"As we reported in April 2009, the rise in enemy-initiated attacks on civilians and on US, Afghan and coalition security forces has resulted from various factors, including a resurgence of the Taliban, the limited capabilities of Afghan security forces, a thriving illicit drug trade, and threats emanating from insurgent safe havens in Pakistan."
The report says the most recent data available (August 2009) showed the highest rate of enemy-initiated attacks since Afghanistan's security situation began to deteriorate.
"Overall, nearly 13,000 attacks were recorded between January and August 2009 - more than two and a half times the number experienced during the same period last year and more than five times the approximately 2,400 attacks reported in all of 2005."
It notes that violence has generally been concentrated in the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan where U.S. forces operate, with insurgents making increasing use of IEDs, suicide attacks and attacks targeting infrastructure and development projects.
The report notes that US officials cite poor security as having caused delays, disruptions, and even abandonment of certain reconstruction projects, while also hampering management and oversight of such efforts. It mentions the case of the Kajaki dam, where vital supplies can no longer be transported by road and have to be brought in by air.
A letter to the GAO from Drew Luten, acting assistant administrator from USAID's bureau of management, (and included as an annexe to the report) spells out the extent of the problems:
"Under the section of the draft report regarding oversight of programs due to security concerns, the ongoing security situation in Afghanistan has made comprehensive and direct oversight of ongoing programs difficult. I would further note that due to the deteriorating security situation in the South and East of the country, monitoring of the delivery of heath services has been significantly hindered or stopped in some areas. Additionally, the USAID Agriculture Rapid Response program had three top engineers resign in one month due to threats against them and their families."

Friday, 6 November 2009

Pak Taliban flees in front of army offensive

The Pakistan Army announced today that four weeks after the start of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, its forces had entered into the town of Makeen in South Waziristan, having already routed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan from a whole swathe of the region. This is no small feat. The militants had been left largely to their own devices in this region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for many years and had built up huge stockpiles of weapons and hidden arms dumps.
The last time the army attempted to enforce its writ in this area, in 2008, it was forced into a humiliating retreat. Then, in order to ensure the safe extraction of 300 of its soldiers holed up in a fort at Ladha, a few miles to the south of Makin, the army agreed to withdraw from the area and cede the fort to Baitullah Mahsud and his militants to be used as a "dispensary".
This time it is different. The speed of the Rah-e-Nijat offensive against the much-feared Mahsuds and their TTP and al-Qaeda allies has been truly astounding. The three-pronged Army offensive has captured just about every major town and village in the region, including Sherwangi, Kotkai, Kaniguram and Sararogha.
What is different this time? According to the Army itself, it has been done by adopting the very tactics used successfully in the past by the tribesmen. Instead of moving slowly and cautiously along the few roads in the area, where they would always be sitting targets for ambushes and IEDs, the troops have stuck to the hills, taking over ridges and commanding features before moving down to enter a built-up area.
"We have beaten them at their own tactic. This has been the classic Mehsud tactic, encircling and ambushing the enemy from the ridges and commanding features and we did the same to them. They were not prepared for this,’ one official told The Dawn newspaper .
In addition, the army has sent in 30,000 troops, many more than in previous incursions into the area. But probably the most important factor was air power from the Pakistan Air Force and the Army's aviation wing. Recently supplied with American high resolution cameras and night vision goggles - and using its own unmanned aerial vehicles (see my posting below) - the jets and helicopters were able to pick off their targets. The Taliban suddenly found that they no longer "owned the night", as they had done in the past.
In each engagement, the militants found themselves outgunned and outsmarted. Before long, even the allegedly tough Uzbek fighters had had enough and many have now decamped to other FATA agencies, including North Waziristan and Orakzai. The Pakistan Army claims to have killed around 500 militants for a loss of only 40 soldiers.
The TTP claim that they are making a tactical retreat only to draw in the army so that it can be better destroyed. However, this is merely talk. As several army officers have already asked, what kind of force that is intent on fighting leaves its weapons and arms dumps behind?
"When somebody retreats, he takes his weapon to fight another day. He does not flee and abandon his weapons. What has happened is that they have left behind huge cache of arms and ammunition", said one officer.
The real question is what happens next. If the Mahsuds and the TTP really are comprehensively defeated and sue for peace, it will have a dramatic impact on the fighting across the border in Afghanistan. We can expect a massive fall-off in attacks in eastern Afghanistan and perhaps a haemorrhage of the more ideologically driven fighters (including many of the foreigners) into Baluchistan.
The Paksitan government is likely to support the formation of tribal lashkars in South Waziristan to restore power to the traditional tribal leaders at the expensive of Hakimullah Mahsud and his clan.
However, the following points should be borne in mind. First, the successes so far are due in no small part to the decision by the Ahmadzai Wazir militant commander Maulvi Nazir in Wana and Hafiz Gul Bahadar to stay neutral and not join the fight.
Second, lashkars will only be formed once the non-TTP tribesmen are certain that the TTP will not be returning to impose their will (and take revenge) on the region.
Third, and most important, Pakistan's military has still not given up on the Afghan Taliban. It only acted against the TTP because it had begun to challenge the writ of the state. Until the Army accepts that the whole Taliban project on both sides of the border is doomed, the conflict is likely to continue. We are still a long way from that.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Debate at the Frontline Club

This evening I will be taking part in a discussion at the Frontline Club in London on 'Democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq - what went wrong?', along with BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley and Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch. Humphrey will be talking about his new book Democracy Kills: What's so good about having the vote? (Macmillan, £12.99). See you there. You can also watch it online.

Pakistan's little known drone programme

There has been consistent and widespread opposition in Pakistan to the CIA's use of armed drones to kill what are euphemistically known as 'High Value Targets' in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan the subject was raised on many occasions.
Some of the government and military opposition was mitigated earlier this year, according to Jane Meyer writing in the New Yorker magazine, after the Obama administration allowed Pakistani officials to help in target selection.
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn from Steve Aftergood's Secrecy News that Pakistan itself has an advanced drone industry.
Karachi-based Integrated Dynamics is run by Raja Sabri Khan, who earned his master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been in business since 1997 designing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), mostly for Pakistan's armed forces. Khan says the company "has never been asked to develop a drone which has an armed implication", but they are perfectly capable of reconnaisance missions and use as target decoys for anti-aircraft missiles.
Buyers also include the US, Australia, Spain, Italy and France. One major advantage is cost. The Integrated Dynamics drones cost around $20,000 each compared to competitors that cost around ten times as much.
Two of the company's models - Vector and Nishan (illustrated above) - are actually made in the government-run National Development Complex. The company blurb for the Vector says "The VECTOR system offers modularity, ruggedness and accessibility that is second to none in field operations. With payload capabilities in the 40 kg range, and a nominal price tag, the competitive edge is obvious. The VECTOR airframes use bullet-proof Kevlar molded fuselage pans, Kevlar/Graphite reinforced equipment bays and side stress panels and high-tensile steel aramid-reinforced landing gears. A variety of payloads can be supported with the available onboard power supplies."
It adds that the Vector UAV has a range of 160-200km and can be equipped with a variety of stock or modified power plants. All models support real-time video and data modules and flight avionics for at least 200km line of sight range applications.
Pakistan has shown with its nuclear programme that it can solve complex engineering problems. It cannot be long before it has a fully functioning armed UAV programme of its own.

Former minister supports Afghan pull-out

Galbraith, Hoh, Lamb - now it is the turn of British former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells to call for a rethink on Afghanistan. Writing in today's Guardian, Howells says the billions being spent by the UK in Afghanistan would be better spent at home by protecting borders and watching the Moslem community for signs of radicalism.
Howells is presently chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, a largely toothless watchdog that reports directly to the prime minister and whose deliberations are secret. I wonder if his views reflect those of the intelligence agencies themselves?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Who are the leaders of the Afghan Taliban?

Mullah Omar's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued a statement on Friday condemning President Obama's decision to offer money to buy off fighters from the organisation. The statement, which predictably scoffed at the idea and pointed out that it had been tried and failed before, was not signed by Mullah Omar (pictured above), but by his deputy, Mullah Barodar Akhund.
This in itself is not surprising. Mullah Barodar (sometimes spelt Barader, but whose real name is Abdul Ghani) in much more involved in the day-to-day running of the military campaign against Coalition forces in Afghanistan than Mullah Omar, who is hidden from public sight.
However, it does raise the question of who is running the Islamic Emirate and who are the members of the so-called the Quetta Shura, based in the Baluchi city of that name.
In recent weeks it has become clear that some US commanders are in favour of using drone attacks to kill shura members, even though they have previously enjoyed close relations with the Pakistani military and intelligence services and that there have so far been no drone attacks in Baluchistan.
The answer to who is in the Quetta Shura is not easy to find. When US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson provided a list of members of the Quetta Shura living in Pakistan (drawn up by US and Afghan intelligence officials) to the Pakistani government at the end of September, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, responded by saying that "From our judgment, there are no Taliban in Balochistan".
Asked about the names provided by Afghan and US officials, he said: "Six to 10 of them have been killed, two are in Afghanistan, and two are insignificant. When people call Mullah Omar the mayor of Quetta, that is incorrect."
So what do we know about the Quetta Shura? It is known internally as the Rahbari shura and is made up of at least 12 and maybe as many as 20 members. Mullah Omar does not attend, so Mullah Barodar is the most senior person present. The list handed to the Pakistani authorities has not been made public, but some of its members are known anyway as they date back to the time before the September 2001 attacks on America.
In 2003, at the time of its creation, the rahbari shura was thought to include: Jalaluddin Haqqani, Saifur Rahman Mansoor, Mullah Dadullah (replaced by Mullah Bakht), Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, Mullah Obaidullah, Hafiz Abdul Majeed, Mullah Mohammad Rasul, Mullah Barodar, and Mullah Abdur Razzaq Akhundzada.
Thomas Ruttig, in his report, The Other Side, written for the Afghan Analysts Network, and previously discussed on this blog, suggests that the Quetta shura also includes military commanders from the regions, including Taliban founder member Hafez Majid, Serajuddin Haqqani and Akhtar Mohammad Mansur.
Jeffrey Dressler, in his excellent report Securing Helmand, also previously reviewed here, says there are two main leadership bodies - the rahbari shura and the majlis al-shura or consultative council, with 13 members whose job is to advise the leadership. Dressler days that Mullah Barodar is in charge, particularly since the arrest of Mullah Obaidullah in March 2007 and the death of Mullah Dadullah in May 2007.
In addition he names Mullah Abdullah Zakir (real name Abdul Qayoum Zakir), a former Guantanamo inmate released in 2007, and Mullah Naim Barich, former Taliban minister for civil aviation and transport, as well as Mullah Mansur (see above).
On Monday, the authorities in Pakistan issued wanted posters of the leadership of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and offered huge rewards for their capture. Strange that in Afghanistan the leadership of the insurgency continues to be such a mystery.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Correspondent's change of heart over more troops

Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times Washington correspondent and noted foreign reporter from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, has written an interesting piece for this week's edition of The Spectator. In "More troops will just mean more targets" Lamb says she has changed her mind about the need for more troops in Afghanistan.
Her change of heart started with a meeting a year ago with junior officers about to go out to Afghanistan from the the British Army's 2 Rifles regiment based in Ballykinler, northern Ireland. Speaking as an experienced reporter who knew southern Afghanistan well, she was supposed to deliver an upbeat and amusing briefing to the young officers prior to the regiment's deployment to Helmand, something she had done before and which she had always enjoyed.
But this time it was different: "I had been in Helmand the previous month and was shocked at the lack of progress. How could I give a positive presentation of what the troops might achieve when the security situation was so much worse than before British troops arrived in 2006?"
She continues: "That night in Ballykinler, I looked around the room at the faces of the soldiers so eager to get out to Afghanistan. Some were so young they still had spots. As a mother myself, I couldn’t shake the thought that many would not come back. For all of them their lives would be changed."
The following day Lamb vowed never to give such a talk again.
Last week, she says, 2 Rifles returned from Helmand. During their tour of duty, 13 men from the regiment died and another 11 were badly wounded and remain in hospital.
Lamb's less emotional, but nonetheless convincing argument is that the Allies are propping up a corrupt government and that huge sums of money are being wasted on war in Afghanistan. As Lamb says, "The cost of one Javelin missile to blow up a compound of suspected Taleban is 80 times what the average Afghan makes in a year." A very powerful piece.